Herzog: We're closer than ever on agreement outline for judicial reform

Opposition leader Yair Lapid called on the coalition to listen to Herzog and cease the legislative process.

 Israeli president Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Israeli president Isaac Herzog at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

President Isaac Herzog will present a new plan for judicial reform negotiations in the coming days, Israeli media reported on Monday night, hours after he told an emergency meeting of almost 100 local government officials that Israel was closer than ever to negotiations.

Herzog will wait a few days for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept the outline and cease legislation, N12 reported, and then publish the outline with support from the local leaders. According to KAN News, Justice Minister Yariv Levin could resign if Netanyahu accepts the outline and puts a freeze on the reform.

“We are closer than ever to the possibility of an agreed outline,” said Herzog at Monday’s meeting. “There are agreements behind the scenes on most things. Now it depends on our national leadership, the coalition and opposition, who will manage to rise to this great moment, who will understand the situation and the terrible alternative behind the door, and who will put the state and its citizens above everything.”

Herzog shared that he said a prayer at the beginning of the day, the Fast of Esther prior to Purim, because of the trouble that the state was facing. Despite the lack of rockets and alarms, what was occurring was one of Israel’s most difficult challenges, he said.

“We are in a historic crisis that threatens to destroy us from within, once and for all,” said Herzog. “We are in one of the most difficult moments that the State of Israel has experienced.”

 Israelis who oppose the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul protest outside the home of Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Israelis who oppose the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul protest outside the home of Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Herzog reiterated that the current formulation of the reform plan endangered Israel’s democratic roots, but that reform was needed and talk on how to do so was legitimate.

The president said he had done everything he could to forward negotiations in the last few weeks, and the outline he had developed touched on issues dear to both sides of the debate.

“It lays down important and historical constitutional foundations,” said Herzog. It protects a healthy structure of balance between powers. It maintains democracy and human rights, and independence of the judicial system. It protects the essences within us and maintains that the State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid called on the coalition to listen to Herzog, and to cease the legislative process.

“Announce an immediate halt to the legislation and we will sit to discuss the outline that he is preparing,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.

Lapid and National Unity head Benny Gantz issued a joint statement thanking the president for his efforts to reach a broad agreement after their past appeals for unity had been rebuffed.

“Israel stands at the threshold of a national emergency, and Netanyahu refuses to stop,” said the opposition leaders.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli supported Lapid and Gantz’s position to not hold negotiations without the legislative process being stopped, saying on social media that there could be “no compromise and no negotiation, [only] total cancellation.”

Gantz also said that negotiations could only occur if the preconditions were met, after which a presidential committee was needed to develop a framework to preserve basic rights.

The Black Robes Movement, a protest made up of lawyers in the private sphere, criticized Herzog for negotiating behind the scenes without transparency and engaging in talks parallel to the progression of reform legislation.

“We call on you to publish today a clear and decisive demand to stop the legislation immediately,” said the movement, also requesting that Herzog address the reform legislation that had advanced in the Knesset. “We call on you to oppose changing the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee, and for the coalition’s attempt to take over the committee and acquire for itself the power to appoint, promote and fire every judge.”

An open letter from 1,200 lawyers also called on the president to not compromise and to negotiate on core democratic values.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the opposition leaders’ responses to Herzog proved they had no interest in negotiations or compromise.

“Their protest is completely political and intended to create chaos and harm the State of Israel in order to bring about the overthrow of the right-wing government and sixth elections,” said Smotrich. “And it won’t happen. We will fix what needs fixing in the legal system and we will continue to work for the entire people of Israel.”

Efrat Regional Council head Oded Revivi said the nearly 100 authorities had gathered at the president’s request, and that he had implored them to help him in leading the call for talks.

Herzog acknowledged that he had been repeating his calls for negotiation for several weeks, and that he asked for the local government authorities to mobilize in the fight to protect the state by pushing for broad agreement.

During the meeting, he received a message of support from the chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, Haim Bibas, who told the president that he and his colleagues had come to the President’s Residence to demonstrate support for Herzog’s initiative to promote dialogue between the coalition and the opposition with regard to judicial reform.

“We came from all over the country at only 24 hours’ notice,” said Bibas. “We came out of genuine concern for the future of the state. Unity is what creates the resilience of us all.”

Bibas, who reiterated the desire of members of the federation to help strengthen Herzog’s call for dialogue, said the presence of the local authority officials represented responsibility in getting to the core of the issue.

Just as the heads of local authorities had left everything in response to Herzog’s invitation, Bibas urged the two sides in the dispute to leave everything and sit for two or three weeks in a room and resolve the problem.

No achievement will be worthwhile if it leads to civil war, he cautioned.

Kfar Saba Mayor Rafi Saar said, “Negotiations are the order of the hour.”

Beersheba Mayor Reuven Danilovich said the sides could not afford to be complacent, and that terrible things were happening in society because people were afraid and didn’t understand the reforms. Since Herzog presented his previous five-point negotiation framework in early February, Danilovich said that there had only been games of ego instead of engaging with the outline.

Yavne Mayor Roei Gabay compared Herzog’s call to the local government heads to that of Purim hero Esther telling her uncle Mordechai to warn the Jewish people of the dangers and decrees that they faced.

Pushing for negotiations across party lines

Center for Regional Government chairman Shay Hajaj called on both sides of the debate to put aside politics and ego.

“Mr. President, I am asking, we are asking – put an outline on the table, we will back you up here as heads of authorities. If they don’t know how to talk together then we will try to lead it,” he said.

Sunday saw a renewed push for the reform and anti-reform camps to negotiate and develop a broad agreement on the reform.

Several MKs announced that they had written a bipartisan letter calling for negotiations. Four major labor and economic associations also issued a direct call for the sides to meet without preconditions.

While reform leaders Levin and Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman accepted these calls to action, opposition leaders refused to negotiate without the precondition of first stopping the legislative process.